New Zealand oil spill reaches shore as bad weather holds up response

Oil has begun washing up on a popular beach on New Zealand's east coast, five days after the container ship Rena struck a reef in the Bay of Plenty. A army of thick, goopy blobs of oil washed ashore at Mount Maunganui Beach in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty, along with the remains of marine animals. Officials urged people to avoid the area, warning that the water off Tauranga city had become "highly toxic".

The oil has inundated parts of Mount Main Beach's shoreline between Leisure Island and Grove Ave. It is the first visible sign of pollution hitting the coast since cargo ship Rena ran aground on
Astrolabe Reed on Wednesday.

The bodies of a sting ray, sea gulls, two large crabs and fish were also found washed ashore this morning. Conservationists have warned of an impending wildlife "tragedy" caused by an oil spill off the east coast of New Zealand, with populations of penguins, whales, seals and seabirds set to be hardest hit.

A severe weather warning for the Bay of Plenty area on Monday has heightened fears that the stricken cargo vessel Rena, which is carrying 1,700 tons of fuel oil and 200 tons of diesel, will start to break up, with grim consequences for the local marine wildlife.

WWF New Zealand said it hoped the incident would not prove a "tragedy" for the region's
marine wildlife (left), which includes bottlenose dolphins, orcas and beaked whales. Large baleen whales also migrate through the affected area.

Of particular concern is the New Zealand dotterel, an endangered shorebird. "There's only 1,200 dotterels left due to coastal developments, so the last thing they need is their feeding ground contaminated," said Bob Zuur, marine advocate at WWF New Zealand.

"Little blue penguins are also very vulnerable as they swim through the oil. Fairy terns frequent the estuary and many northern hemisphere birds, such as godwits (right), that have migrated south for
spring, are also under threat."

"New Zealand is known as the seabird capital of the world. We have about 85 different seabirds that breed here. It's breeding season now, so there are many birds, such as petrels, that are diving into the water to find food for their chicks. At least nine oil-coated seabirds, including seven little blue penguins, have been recovered from the slick.

"The oil makes it difficult for them to fly and there's a real risk they will ingest the oil when they preen, or pass it into their chicks.

"Should the vessel break up, we risk an international-scale incident. It's a huge amount of oil. I
sincerely hope the it doesn't break up as the storm bears down on it." It's estimated that up to 50 tons of oil has already been jettisoned into the sea. Radio New Zealand has reported that four of the 1,300 containers aboard Rena carry ferro-silicon, a hazardous substance which is flammable if it comes into contact with water.

Efforts to remove oil from the ship, which ran aground on Astrolabe Reef in the early hours of Wednesday, have been suspended in the face of deteriorating weather conditions.

On Sunday, October 9th, about 10 tons of fuel oil had been pumped into safe storage from the 236-meter-long ship but that represented a fraction of the 1,700 tons on board.

The salvage operators have said they are confident the Rena (right) is secure but fears remain that the
47,000-ton vessel could break up in stormy weather, disgorging oil and cargo into the bay. Maritime New Zealand, which is overseeing the salvage operation, issued a public health warning on Monday, ordering people not to "touch or attempt to clean up oil as it is toxic" and reinforcing earlier advice to avoid collecting or eating shellfish from the affected area.

Warning signs are being erected on beaches. Earlier advice had been that oil was unlikely to come ashore before the middle of this week but sticky black blobs have been deposited on shorelines by the tide.

Maritime New Zealand said it hoped that when the operation resumed it would take between 30 and 40 hours to remove the remainder of the oil. Chemical oil dispersants(left) have been dropped on the slick but this is believed to have had little effect.

Fears that New Zealand could face a large-scale environmental crisis escalated on Monday, October 10th as the oil leaking from the container ship Rena into the sea off the Tauranga coast increased by as much as ten-fold. The news came as the vessel's remaining crew were evacuated following a mayday alarm amid heavy swells.

The New Zealand environment minister, Nick Smith (right), said the fresh release of oil into the sea meant the Rena spill was the country's most serious ever maritime
environmental disaster.

Speaking at a media conference on Tuesday afternoon, he said the consequences had been "inevitable" since the ship plowed into the Astrolabe reef in calm waters in the North Island Bay of Plenty last Wednesday morning.

A new rupture to one of the ship's main fuel tanks released between 130 and 350 tons of heavy oil into the water, according to officials who conducted a flyover of the freighter. More than 1,600 tons of fuel remain aboard. The fresh damage was caused after the ship's hull dragged in heavy winds and swells of up to four meters.

The continuing movement of the hull has raised fears that the 47,000-ton vessel could break up, triggering an environmental and ecological catastrophe. The mayday alarm and evacuation by
helicopter of the remaining crew early on Wednesday added to speculation that the vessel might be close to fracture.

Salvage operator Maritime New Zealand was quick to state, however, that the operation was a "standard precautionary measure", expedited by weather conditions, and there remained "no obvious signs of deformation".

The Rena is carrying 1,368 shipping containers, of which at least 22 contain hazardous goods, according to the transport minister, Steve Joyce.

Officials have reiterated their instruction for locals to avoid visiting the coastline, where oil has been surfacing since Monday afternoon. A team of about 100 people has begun to clean up the oil from the popular swimming beach at Mount Maunganui, but the current are expected to push the slick at least as far south as Maketu, 20 miles down the coast from Mount Maunganui.

Salvage teams suspended the pumping of fuel from the stricken vessel just hours after they began on Tuesday in the face of deteriorating weather, but hope to resume the operation in the coming days, with forecasts suggesting milder conditions. (At right: ongoing wildlife rescue and clean-up)

The salvage plan entails three phases: the removal of oil, followed by the removal of containers and finally the flotation of the vessel itself. The operation is expected to last many months.

Oil slick comes ashore in New Zealand








Source:
The Guardian,"New Zealand beach hit by oil slick - video", accessed October 10, 2011
The Guardian, "New Zealand oil spill reaches shore as bad weather holds up response", accessed October 10, 2011
The Guardian, "New Zealand oil spill: conservationists warn of wildlife 'tragedy'", accessed October 11, 2011
The Chronicle, "Wildlife wash up after NZ oil spill", accessed October 11, 2011
The Guardian, "Oil spill is New Zealand's 'worst maritime disaster'", accessed October 11, 2011

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